Apart from the majority of convicts who were convicted for stealing, assault and forgery, there
were small groups who were transported at times for political crimes. Rather than seeking
personal gain, they were more concerned with social change and protesting against injustices
within their community. Some merely disturbed the peace by demonstrating against those in
authority, but others were more disruptive and apart from holding meetings and giving speeches,
refused to work, damaged property and assaulted people.
In all, the transportation era may only have generated around 1000 political prisoners, but they
had friends in high places and attracted a lot of attention from newspapers, politicians and
people in public life. In fact, they still attract a lot of attention today and have come to be
known for the various causes they represented. Much has been written about them and in time more
specialist web sites will be created to perpetuate their memory.
First Scottish Martyrs
The First Scottish Martyrs were five men who supported the ideals of the French Revolution -
liberty, equality and fraternity. They were transported to New South Wales in 1794. Their names
were Maurice Magarot, Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving and Joseph Gerrald.
The Naval Mutineers
In 1797 there was a mutiny in several British naval bases. The mutineers rebelled against the
sailors' poor food, poor pay and poor conditions whereby they could be flogged for many minor
offences. Some of the mutineers were hung and fifteen of them were transported to New South
Wales, among them Dr William Redfern who had been a surgeon on the 'Standard'. Redfern was soon
pardoned and in 1814, after three transports arrived in Sydney amid reports of a high death toll
due to disease, he was ordered to prepare a report on conditions on board ships and suggest
improvements for later voyages.
Peter Mayberry has identified the Naval men (some of whom were Irish), who took part in the mutinies at Nora and Spithead and who were transported to NSW
in 1801 on either the 'Canada' or the 'Minorca':-
Thomas McCann - Minorca - tried River of Thames
George Lewis - Canada or Minorca
James Irwin [Erwin] - Minorca - tried Brunswick
John Burns - Canada or Minorca
Thomas Brown - Canada or Minorca
John Murphy - Canada or Minorca
Christopher Mahane - Canada or Minorca
Terence Dunn - Canada or Minorca
Thomas Jourdaine - Canada or Minorca
James Hailey - Canada or Minorca
Patrick Devoy - Canada - tried Portsmouth
Peter McGuire - Canada - tried Portsmouth
John Hoare - Canada - tried Portsmouth
James Cannon - Canada or Minorca - tried Portsmouth
William Redfern - Minorca
There were several rebellions in Ireland during the convict era, especially in 1798, 1803, 1848 and
1867. The people of Ireland were agitating for political separation from Britain and large
numbers of rebels were transported to Australia. Two groups especially stand out in Australian
convict folklore, one for the rebellion they led in 1804 at Castle Hill in New South Wales, and
the other, the Fenians, for the events surrounding their flight from Western Australia after
being transported in 1868. Peter Mayberry's web site includes a database of Irish Rebels to Australia 1797-1806.
Castle Hill Rebellion
On March 4, 1804, soldiers were called in to crush an uprising of 300 Irish convicts at Castle
Hill to the north of Parramatta in New South Wales. Fifteen Irishmen were killed and the leaders
were hung. The rest of the convicts were moved to Newcastle and became the first inhabitants of
a New South Wales secondary punishment establishment.
Two political rebellions occurred during March and April 1820. As in other cases, the rebels
appear to have been seeking changes in electoral practices, in the hope of winning a less
corrupt form of government.
As a result of the first instance, nineteen Scots rebels from Bonnymuir and Paisley (near
Glasgow) were transported to NSW after two of their colleagues were executed. "The Scottish
Radicals" by Margaret & Alastair MacFarlane (1981), details the lives of the rebels after
they arrived in Australia.
A second group, called the Yorkshire rebels, were transported to VDL. Eleven arrived in 1820
on the 'Lady Ridley' and a twelfth transportee, Michael Downing, arrived on the 'Phoenix' in
Peter Thomas in Darwin, Australia is
researching the Yorkshire group and is looking for possible links with the Scots rebels above.
Principal names in the Yorkshire group were William Rice (1780-1853), William Comstive
(1792-1858; he was sent to Norfolk Island on the 'Arab' in 1834), John Burkinshaw, Richard Addy,
Joseph Cahpiel, Joseph Firth, Benjamin Hanson, John Lindley, John Peacock, Benjamin Rogers, and
The Tolpuddle Martyrs
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were six men from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset who were transported
to Australia on the Surrey in 1834. They were sentenced for unlawfully administering oaths of loyalty to the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers they had established to fight the continuing reduction of their wages. This was the beginning of Trade Unionism in England. It only took the jury five
minutes to convict James Hammett, James Brine, brothers George and James Loveless, and father
and son Thomas and John Standfield. Interestingly, the local magistrate was a factory owner who
stood to lose if they got their way.
Swing Riots and Machine Breakers
The Machine Breakers were rural labourers in England who rebelled against the use of machines on
farms. They felt they were taking away their jobs and tried to destroy them. As a result, many of the rioters were captured and sentenced and about 475 of them were transported to Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales. There were even a small number of ships, such as the Eleanor (NSW 1831) and Eliza (VDL 1831), which only transported convicted machine breakers.
Jill Chambers of Letchworth, Herts, England has been researching the "Swing Riots" for many
years and publishes a newsletter called the "Machine Breakers' News" three times a year. She has
published several books on the subject and some of the titles are:
"Rebels of the Field - Robert Mason and the convicts of the Eleanor"
"Wiltshire Machine Breakers - Vol. 1 The riots and Trials"
"Wiltshire Machine Breakers - Vol. 2 The Rioters"
"Hampshire Machine Breakers - The Story of the 1830 Riots"
"Buckinghamshire Machine Breakers"
Geoffrey Sharman has extracted the names of the Swing Rioters who were transported to Van Diemen's Land on the Eliza and Proteus and other ships 1831-1833.
A descendant of convict Thomas Kershaw, who was considered the ringleader of the "Shuttle Gathers Riots' of Rochdale in 1828, has placed Thomas Kershaw's story on her web page.
Rebels from Canada
In 1839 a number of convicts were transported from the British colony of Canada (known then as Upper Canada) for taking part in the rebellions against the colonical government. See more information and a list of those transported to VDL in Canadian Convicts on the HMS Buffalo 1839-1840.
The Chartists were a group of about 60 people who were transported from Monmouthshire to Van
Diemen's land in 1842. They had lobbied for a universal vote by ballot, a parliament that sat
every year, and pay for their members of parliament. They drew up a charter of the changes they
wanted to see in their political system. Unfortunately, although their demands would seem to be
a matter fact today, in their day they were considered to be revolutionary and dangerous by
those who held a monopoly over power. Pressure was brought to bear and the rest is history.
There were 38 Fenians among the prisoners who arrived in Western Australia in 1868 on board the
Hougoumont. Although that ship should have been remembered as the last ever convict transport,
its place in history is often overshadowed by the story which surrounded her famous Fenian
convicts. They were products of the Irish Revolution in 1867 and fearing there may have been an
attempt to rescue them, the Hougoumont was escorted by a man-of-war for part of the voyage from
England. Still fearing trouble on their arrival, not only in Western Australia, but also in
South Australia and Victoria, the presence of a warship was requested from Sydney.
All fears proved to be groundless, however, and the Fenians proved to be model prisoners until
the time was ripe for them to make their escape in quite a dramatic manner. John Boyle O'Reilly
was one of the Fenians and he succeeded in escaping by swimming out to an American whaler near
Bunbury. He was taken to America and established himself there as a successful journalist.
Other Fenians caused more trouble for the authorities when they were allowed to leave the colony
on conditional pardons between 1869 and 1871. The P&O Company refused to take them, but several
did manage to get away on a steamer bound for New Zealand. They intended to continue on to
America but New Zealand had changed its laws and no longer accepted conditional pardon convicts.
The Fenians were arrested and threatened with deportation back to Western Australia when a ship
arrived on its way to California. They were allowed to join it and continue on to San Francisco.